My Period Went AWOL, So I Asked a Doctor to Explain Why
While I can’t say I actually enjoy the day my period arrives, I am definitely very thankful that it has. Why? Aside from that achy, dragging feeling in my stomach, irritability, and major mood swings (not to mention the annoyance of having to change a tampon or pad every few hours), there is an overwhelming sense of relief that my body is in healthy, working order and all is well in hormone land. But let’s backtrack a little to provide some context.
During my college years as a 20-something student, my period went AWOL for about six months. It didn't help that I was burning the midnight oil, studying all day, and dancing all night (i.e., not looking after myself) while juggling a part-time job as a waitress (a job that also involved late nights). It was my first time living away from home, too, so of course I wasn’t eating very well either. Put all of that together and you have a recipe for hormone flatline.
When your menstrual cycle completely stops, however, and doesn’t come back for an extended period, it’s very disconcerting and could be a sign that something’s not quite right. My mom took me to several specialists at the time, some of whom wanted to put me on birth control, while others told me I had polycystic ovary syndrome (despite my not having any of the other symptoms).
To help those of you who have also experienced this or are going through it right now, I tapped Anna Cabeca, DO, FACOG, Emory University–trained gynecologist, hormone and integrative medicine expert, and creator of Women’s Restorative Health Boot Camp and Women’s Sexual CPR Workshop, to provide some clear reasons your period's gone AWOL, along with what you can do and eat to get it back (and the foods that relieve those PMS symptoms when it does).
Be Aware of Your Body Fat Ratio
Did you know that your body fat ratio can impact hormone health? Cabeca tells us that women who are under 12% body fat can experience significant hormone disruption and that the ideal percentage of body fat for women to encourage healthy hormone production is between 18% and 25%. The ideal/preferred waist-to-hip ratio for women from a health assessment standpoint is of 0.8.
“Our fat/adipose tissue really functions like an endocrine organ,” she explained. “It is there to protect us and to help us make hormones. With this in mind, too little body fat is not recommended for women, and too much body fat is equally unhealthy.”
Exercise is vital to our immediate and long-term health, so we’re certainly not advising that you stop altogether. But you don’t need to spend all day in the gym either. Cabeca tells MyDomaine that excessive exercise can negatively impact hormone production and cause a phenomenon known as the athlete triad, which consists of disordered eating, decreased bone mineral density or osteoporosis, and amenorrhea or the absence of menstruation in a woman of reproductive age.
“When women work out really hard for sustained periods of time, they have higher levels of cortisol, which disrupts their body’s natural levels,” she said. “And if they become too lean, then their body does not have the sufficient body fat necessary to produce the hormones needed for a healthy period.” According to nutritionist Lyn-Genet Recitas, author of The Metabolism Plan, you “only need 8 to 10 minutes to boost thyroid function and optimize health and weight loss.”
Eat More Good Fats
So if you want to maintain optimal body fat to keep your hormones healthy, Cabeca says the key is swapping out “energy-deficient foods” for good fats. “Add high-quality whole foods to your diet which respect keto-alkaline principles,” she said. “Breads and processed grains provide quick-release energy, but fat will provide your body with more sustained energy than carb-loading will.” Some of her recommendations:
- Healthy oils such extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, almond oil, and coconut oil
- Wild-caught salmon and other healthy wild-caught fatty fish
- Healthy cuts of hormone and antibiotic-free, grass-fed meats
- Nuts, which make a great snack on the go or after a workout
Understand Your Body
Control Your Stress Levels With Self-Care
While avoiding stress isn’t always possible, it’s important we recognize when it’s impacting us physically and emotionally, as this will greatly impact your cycle. Why? “Stress does tax our hormone production capabilities as we create our hormones from cholesterol,” she said. For more details and information as to why, you can check out Cabeca’s “Hormones 101” video.
“As women, we can wear ourselves out, and there are two modes that we can switch into from an evolutionary standpoint,” Cabeca explained:
- Fight or flight (very common with our modern lifestyle and high stress levels): This is the feeling of being “on” all the time.
- Feed and breed: What we are able to experience when we bring support into our lives and slow down our pace. This is where we are able to get more into romance and enjoying relationships, boosting fertility, etc.
For women, Cabeca said it basically boils down to either being in “pedal to the metal” mode or “romance” mode. “If you’re incredibly busy or a working mom, the key is to bring in support around you,” she said. “Invest in your marriage, find ways to self-nourish and to replenish through self-care. Make sure that you are getting adequate rest and eating nourishing, healthy foods to help support you on all levels.”
Use Organic Hygiene Products
While some of you have already made the switch, for many, choosing standard vs. organic tampons and pads isn’t something we consider “bad” for our period health. But Cabeca says it definitely does. “Women are consistently using synthetic personal hygiene products,” she said. “When it comes to period health, it’s very important for women to use organic pads and tampons. The chemicals in conventional pads and tampons can enter into our systems, and as our skin is sensitive, personal hygiene products composed of synthetic fibers or containing pesticides can be irritants and become hormone disrupters.”
So choose your products wisely. We personally love Lola’s 100% organic cotton tampons (and they deliver!).
Eliminate Certain Food Groups to Relieve PMS
Now that we’ve made note of the things that can impact period health and make it go AWOL, it’s time to find out how you can relieve those PMS symptoms when it comes back. If you suffer from PMS, then you probably don’t welcome your period each month. But Cabeca says the key is to reduce certain food groups that make it worse. These are the foods she recommends eliminating or keeping to an absolute minimum for most women, but especially those with PMS symptoms:
Dairy: “Conventional dairy can be laden with hormones and antibiotics, which can contribute to hormonal imbalance in a woman’s already delicate system. Many women who greatly reduce and/or eliminate dairy from their diets will see significant improvements in their PMS symptoms.”
Refined Sugar: “Everyone benefits from keeping sugar to a minimum as part of a healthy, balanced, and anti-aging diet. Keep all sugars to a minimum, including high-glycemic fruits and avoid artificial sweeteners as well. You want your ratio of vegetables to fruit to be eight to two.”
Processed Foods: “Eating a clean, balanced, whole foods–based diet is the best way to ensure you’re receiving optimal nutrients to help support healthy periods.”
To help spread the word and combat hormonal imbalance on the ground level, Anna Cabeca recently partnered with Health Coach Institute to release both men’s and women’s protocol for the school’s newly launched Advanced Nutrition for Health Coaches program. The goal is to further empower HCI’s health coaches and equip them with the pertinent expertise to support their clients’ well-being through habit change.
Have you experienced your period go AWOL too? What was the cause? Share it with us in the comments, and tell us what else you’d like to know about period health.